Surfing Dog

Surfing With the Noon Patrol: A Snowboarder At Sea

It’s possible that the marketing lingo on the arm of my wetsuit is a touch aspirational, as I haven’t been in the water before lunch since this whole thing began, almost nine months ago. I know it’s been that long because I have the note that I scribbled to myself, right here: “June 21st, the longest day of the year. Not a snowflake in sight.”

It was the middle of summer, and I was anxious to get to the mountain and resume the success of last year’s snow season. I began snowboarding in 2008, when the economy tanked and I couldn’t afford my city apartment anymore. I moved to the mountain for the cheap rent, for the solitude. I found a season pass abandoned in one of the rooms of the ski lease, my snowboard was a generous gift from an old boyfriend. But 2013 was the year commitment bit hard. The year I didn’t go to the resort anymore but headed into the backcountry. The year I sat through all the avalanche seminars, the year I learned to dig and dig and dig and dig. The year I could run on ice and coil rope and build emergency snow anchors with nothing but chapstick. The year I spent actual, real life money on a book on how to tie knots.

But that snow season was several months gone and I still hadn’t recovered. Never re-oriented back to my day job, secure and well-paying, which I had to quit because after all the adventure in the snow the world had grown bigger and my mind collapsed under the routine. Never adjusted to summer weather that I found mild and uninspiring. I really needed something to do, and eventually it occurred to me … the ocean was right there. Surfing and snowboarding, the fundamentals couldn’t possibly be that different. Stand on board. Aside from the fact that I’m not a very good swimmer, that I had no board, no wetsuit, any idea how to surf, and that the coast of Northern California is the third-largest Great White Shark breeding ground in the whole world, I considered it a flawless plan. 

I began the demoralizing process of learning a new sport with a two-day lesson, just me and five other students: a nice girl from Sweden, a 55-year-old bucket-lister, a mouth-breathing Stanford medical intern, and two other non-descripts. We gathered on the beach and slithered into our loaned wetsuits, cold and damp from the previous session. I really didn’t know what to expect from a wetsuit. I had never had a use for neoprene.

I found myself skeptical about the whole thing, actually, as I lay stomach-down on the sand, receiving instruction on how to paddle, watching the icy grey water wash up and over the rocks that littered the beachfront. The swell was abnormally large, obvious even to an untrained eye. And I could see the rip tide to the right of our practice area, a dark, narrow patch of water hard at work dragging everything that dare enter its borders out to sea. The teacher assured us that the fins on these surf boards were not sharp enough to cut our faces, but to make sure we cover our heads with our arms just in case.

Most people I talked to recommended learning how to surf somewhere warm, with gentle waves and clear water, to ensure an enjoyable experience the first time. Sure, sounds great, but jet-setting somewhere tropical so as to delicately and enjoyably usher yourself into the sport of surfing is not an option for normal people. The only option was to put on a too big, cold-ass hand-me-down wetsuit, get into some frothy, sharky water, and get pounded in some abnormally angry surf.

It was one of the most exhausting days I’ve ever had, which includes hours on windy, exposed summits, and days hiking through knee-deep powder. But the medium of the mountain is not dynamic. It’s a fixed substance that you navigate at a metered pace, set and adjusted by ability and will and weather and whatever other factors present themselves. The energy of the water, however, is kinetic, and always moving. You travel at the pace that the ocean pleases.

Amateur Hour
If you’re covered in sand when you leave the water, then you have done it wrong.

Here, on my first day literally stepping out of my element and into another, everything that I knew failed me. I had packed like a mountaineer, with an arsenal of clothing layers and tools for every possible emergency situation or change in altitude or weather. Which is hilarious considering I never left sea level. I didn’t need any of it. I had a jet boil and zip ties and wool socks—but I had forgotten a towel. The arm muscles I needed for paddling were largely unused and I felt it, immediately, as I tried to move the unwieldy 10-foot-long foam board though the water.

The rules of the mountain didn’t translate, all the way down to my snacks. I have witnessed heated debates as to what is the best mountain food. I’m a fan of Snickers. I eat maybe two or three Snickers bars a day if I’m out in the snow. The one I had brought to the beach had melted completely, felt heavy in my stomach, and was just wrong all wrong all wrong.

And that confounded leash. Bane of snowboarders—there was a point where you were required to leash your board to your leg—but essential to surfers, I twisted myself up in that thing endlessly. I tripped over it, snagged my feet on it. I somehow flipped the board so many times that the leash had wrapped around my body. What was this evil?!

Standing up on a surfboard really isn’t all that hard. We had all done it by the end of the day, several times, excited and smiling when we breathlessly dragged ourselves out of the water. But that is where the similarity between snowboarding and surfing ends.

I didn’t expect to actually like surfing, but I was in it for a lot of other reasons: To experience something new. To get out of my house. To pry loose the unwelcome chokehold of the Internet. The ocean is nice, but I never felt a profound connection with it. Also: there are lantern fish and other horrifying creatures of the deep. But I had committed. Now I needed a longboard, a wetsuit. And anyway, the snow was so far away.

Eve O’Neill shares the ocean with the sharks. Top photo by Nathan Rupert; bottom photo via the author.


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